When it comes to Jersey City’s art scene, it’s hard to tell whether the glass is half full or half empty.
On the one hand, art seems to be thriving everywhere.
Just days ago, artists of all stripes could be seen selling their creations during the monthly First Friday event outside the Grove Street PATH station, the monthly art shows at LITM have become “can’t miss” events, and the annual Artist Studio Tour showcases the works of dozens of artists.
But some artists say Jersey’s City’s image as New York’s “sixth borough” is deceiving, particularly where the arts community is concerned. High rent and other living expenses, too few places to show one’s work, and a larger community that is often unaware of what the local art scene has to offer, some say, hinder what could be a thriving artistic movement.
The city’s old powerhouse building, across the street from the old 111 site, was supposed to be play the “beauty” to 111’s “beast.”
Painter Ben Haver agreed, noting that even though he lives in Jersey City, “I only try to show [my work] in New York, Brooklyn, and other states…I don’t really bother trying to show locally. I’ve had very small success selling my work to people in Jersey (including Jersey City). But I don’t get the sense that people here buy art. And I don’t think they really seek it out, even just to see it.”
Haver’s work is currently being shown at two galleries in Philadelphia, and he is hopeful about being accepted into a juried group show in Boston later this year. But he said he has never shown his work in his current hometown.
“There are a lot of artists living here. But how many galleries exist for us to show in?”
Brauer has an answer. “I think there are maybe 10 galleries right now, which, when you think about it, isn’t really a lot.” Brauer knows firsthand how tough it can be keeping a gallery in Jersey City afloat. Her gallery, Fish with Braids on Jersey Avenue, closed last December after a three-year run.
“There are very few [public] resources available,” she noted. “So it’s always a struggle staying open and you have to get really creative.”
Instead of being torn down, the powerhouse building was supposed to become the anchor for an historic district that would combine artist studios, galleries, and affordable residential housing units for artists. Plans for the district, which covers an eight-block area between Pavonia-Newport and Grove Street, called for an extended art-infused plaza and walkway. The concept was supposed to make Jersey City an arts destination that would bring in tourist dollars and create jobs.
But this dream has never materialized and much of the original plan for the Powerhouse district has been scaled back. For example, plans to have 50 percent of the area’s new housing designated as affordable housing for artists has been cut to 10 percent, and the city has granted variances to developers to build luxury housing in the district.
Much of the rest of the area now sits undeveloped and in limbo.
Jim Stephenson, the owner and creator of Rotating Galleries, saw an opportunity when the recent recession left many storefronts vacant and without permanent tenants.
“These storefronts were eyesores and nothing was going on in these places,” said Oscar Laluyan, assistant marking director for Rotating Galleries. “He was thinking of doing a one-time art installation in one of these empty storefronts in Jersey City. When I joined him, I said, ‘Why not make it a regular thing?’ ”
The gallery now officially represents about 75 artists regularly and shows their work for months a time in vacant storefronts throughout Hudson County. The gallery has held shows in Jersey City, Hoboken, and Union City. The gallery also periodically holds curated group shows.
“It can be difficult to get noticed in Jersey City. People don’t necessarily know where to go, or where to look for good art. And that makes it hard to sustain permanent galleries, and makes it harder for artists to stay here,” said Laluyan. “But, it’s really a matter of creating an institution like Rotating Galleries and sustaining it long enough that you’re able to make a mark and gain a track record so people know that you’re here.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.